A friend took me to a Red Sox Game at Fenway Park. It was the middle of April, so there was a chill in the wind. I layered up and topped it off with my retro Brooklyn Dodgers tee-shirt. It was Jackie Robinson day. Everyone was wearing the fabled #42.
April is the beginning of the new baseball season, when hope springs eternal. Anything could happen. The haves and have-nots are equally in the race. For me, it’s also when I open the cookie jar of memories, mentally racing around the bases to those days when I listened to our boys of summer on the radio.
Vin Scully was a 20-something rookie broadcaster, calling his first season of Brooklyn Dodgers games.
The Korean “conflict” dominated the radio news, which preceded the important stuff, baseball. The Brooklyn Dodgers were “America’s Team” in 1950. Vin Scully was a new breed of sports broadcaster. He mixed in stories about President Truman’s desegregation of our Armed Forces and “discontent” about the integrated Dodgers’ team.
Scully used phrases like “Goodnight, sweet Prince”, after Jackie Robinson turned in another memorable game amid jeers from rabble-rousers. It was curious to this young fan who dreamed of becoming a team-mate of Jackie Robinson, Peewee Reese, and Duke Snider. I’d wear Dodger Blue with pride, I promised myself.
Vin Scully’s word portraits of the 1950 Brooklyn Dodgers often seemed at odds with the tabloid accounts of the New York Daily News and Daily Mirror. Their sports sections only talked about the games, the heroes, and the goats. I glanced at the front pages — boring stuff about politics and social upheaval.
I thought it would be wonderful if they played baseball all year round and the stories would always be about the Bums and the dreaded New York Yankees. Heck, it would be terrific to listen to Vin Scully and not those other people talking about grown up stuff. Scully even mentioned things we were studying in school and made them sound exciting. I’ll never forget his referring to April as “the cruelest month.” I’d steal that line a zillion times.
A couple of decades later, opportunity opened the door to meetings with Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, and other fabled Boys of Summer. Campy was friendly and outgoing, eager to share stories with a newbie reporter. He would say, “Life is good, young fella. You gotta appreciate it.”
Jackie Robinson would glare at Campy as he wove the stories of good times with the Dodgers. Sometimes, he would interrupt Campanella with a sharp, “Enough, Roy. Enough of that fiction.”
Robinson would turn to me, his eyes blazing, seemingly angry. “Life isn’t a ball game, young man,” he once said. Then, he gently patted me on the shoulder, noting that I was a good conversationalist and listener. It was a bit confusing. It happened that way several times.
People like Campy, Peewee Reese and even a reluctant Duke Snider would share that Jackie Robinson was a very complicated man on a mission.
PBS is again running Ken Burns’ two part portrait of Jackie Robinson. It goes beyond myth and legend to examine Robinson, the man. The man from Cairo, Georgia was so much more than the athlete who broke baseball’s racial barrier. The inner turmoil, anger, frustration, and multiple health issues took Robinson from us way too early, at age 53.
This week, Vin Scully is also being honored as he begins his 67th and final year as the voice of the Dodgers. Scully, at 88 and counting, still sounds like that young story-teller I listened to in 1950.
1950. So long ago. A time of innocence for many young boys like me.
Another year rolled around. It’s late September, the end of the 2017 season.
Vin Scully retired and though the world is not running short of commentators for baseball, no one can match his style, his class, his understanding of the game, or the poetry he added to his commentary.
On a positive note, the Sox are in it, hopefully taking the Eastern Division this week. It’s been a bumpy ride all season with (ironically) great pitching and intermittent hitting. They are on television, right now as I write, down one-nothing in the fifth inning to the Cincinnati Reds. It’s still early. We’ve been pulling games out from behind all season. Maybe this is another.
Baseball has been a saving grace for me during this otherwise disgraceful year of political ugliness and international ill-will. I wonder if a World Series win would fix it? Somehow, I doubt it.
We need more than a ballpark win this year.